Cost of federal tea-tasters too steep? Panel makes budget hit list

February 13, 1993|By Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON -- On President Clinton's hit list of "unproductive advisory commissions" is the Board of Tea Experts -- created nearly a century ago to spare us the hazard of rancid tea.

Low-grade tea could be an unintended consequence of the president's plan to abolish what he described Wednesday as "hundreds of unproductive" advisory commissions that have "spread across this government like kudzu."

Last year, federal taxpayers spent $146 million to support 1,230 government advisory committees made up of 29,020 people.

Mr. Clinton has ordered a review of 700 of those commissions -- the ones not created by Congress -- and has asked federal agencies to eliminate at least a third of them.

Are all these commissions really necessary? The newcomers in the White House cited several "typical examples" of possibly useless commissions, including something called the Board of Tea Experts.

The board is a group of seven experts who toil, sip and spit in anonymity for two days each year, year after year, helping to ensure that the 188 million pounds of tea that this nation imports annually are of the highest caliber.

Mr. Clinton can't kill the board without the consent of Congress anyway. "The Board of Tea Experts is mandated by law," said Donna Combs, the civil servant who keeps tabs on the board for the Food and Drug Administration. "It was established pursuant to the Tea Importation Act of 1897."

"I mean, I don't want to boast about the agency, but you don't know what might be sent over," Ms. Combs said of foreign tea shipments. "What they [the board members] do is, they take the tea and they spit it into the little spittoons, and they don't swallow it. They just taste it. It's a fine art. . . . In fact, the tea tasters are having their annual meeting this month."

Can Mr. Clinton really help slash a $4 trillion national debt by deep-sixing the tea tasters?

"Let me tell you, these poor tea experts . . . they earn $50 annually -- $25 a day," Ms. Combs said. "And I don't know that we could really streamline costs by cutting that committee."

Robert Dick, 78, has held the job of supervisory tea examiner for 35 years. He works out of an office in Brooklyn, N.Y., and organizes the annual gatherings.

Asked to describe the conditions that led to the creation of the tea committee, he said that in the 1870s there was no way to keep low-grade, unpotable tea out of the country. So America's tea merchants got together with Congress and established minimum standards for quality -- hence, the Tea Importation Act.

But someone needed to carry that legacy into the future, acting as a watchdog and taste-testing samples that are submitted by importers year after year -- hence, the Board of Tea Experts.

"First they smell it," Mr. Dick said. "You gotta have hot, boiling water -- roiling hot water. Then they pour it on the tea and take it up and smell it. If you smell something wrong with it, you set it aside and wait until it cools down enough for you to taste it."

These days, the tea experts don't come across much tea that has been deliberately downgraded or tampered with by foreign exporters.

Mr. Dick said any quality problems tend to be accidental.

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